Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Sunday that Israel must recognize that its founding in 1948 was a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians and apologize for it “in order to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.”
Palestinians and some Arab Israelis mark the Nakba, or “catastrophe” — namely the dispossession that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel — every year on May 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel 69 years ago.
Erekat said that the day “means an ongoing journey of pain, loss, and injustice.”
Erekat called on the Israeli government to “open all its 1948 archives and show their own nation the truth of what was done to our people, including its ethnic cleansing policies and the policy of shooting to kill Palestinians that attempted to return home.”
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation. The refugees, who together with their descendants are estimated today to number about 5.5 million, mostly still live in the region. Tens of thousands more were displaced in the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lands the Palestinians seek for a future state.
For the Palestinians, the so-called “right of return” to homes they fled or were forced out of is a prerequisite for any peace agreement with Israel, but it is a demand the Jewish state has consistently rejected. An influx of millions of Palestinians would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state; Israel argues that it absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refuges from the Middle East and North Africa and that, in the same way, Palestinian refugees and their descendants could become citizens in an independent Palestine if the peace process were brought to its fruition.
In his statement on Sunday, Erekat also called on Britain “to apologize for its role in the Palestinian catastrophe, beginning by the infamous Balfour Declaration and the denial of our national rights.”
In February, the Balfour Apology Campaign, run by the Palestinian Return Center rights group, launched a petition on the British parliament website calling on Britain to “openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration. The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation.”
Last month, the British government issued a response, emphatically refusing to apologize for the publication of the document and saying instead that it is proud of the role Britain played in establishing Israel.
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG (her Majesty’s Government) does not intend to apologise,” the British response began. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
Signed on November 2, 1917 by the UK’s then foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, the declaration announced his government’s intention to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in the Land of Israel.
It was seen as giving the Zionist movement official recognition and backing on the part of a major power, on the eve of the British conquest of the then-Ottoman territory of Palestine.